Connecting the Dots

Welcome to the "Connecting the Dots" column! This editorial feature in AASHE Bulletin includes the voices of a rotating list of higher education sustainability specialists each week. This column aims to demonstrate an understanding of higher education sustainability in a holistic way, connecting or grappling with the various dimensions and scales. Below is our most recent column, followed by all past columns. Enjoy reading the interesting ways these thought leaders have connected the dots!

Current Issue

From the July 23, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

By Heather Spalding
Sustainability Leadership and Outreach Coordinator
Portland State University

Summer is a time of reflection for sustainability professionals in higher education as we wrap up the previous year and look forward to the future. How have we impacted our campuses? Did our initiatives create both broad and deep strides toward resilience? The summer season lets planted seeds thrive if the right supporting conditions have been cultivated. In the same way, colleges and universities are substrates that can yield innovation, creativity, and solutions. Year’s end allows us to see seeds sprout and mature, perhaps viewing transformation and growth as students and graduates strengthen their roots in communities around the world.

This June, I had an opportunity to mark the end of the academic year by volunteering at my university’s commencement ceremony. In just over 12 hours, we graduated the largest class in our state’s history. It was a time to reflect on my own past campus experiences as both a student and staff member. During the celebration, I glanced back from the stage to the line of graduates walking toward the podium and was humbled. Each name spoken from the microphone wove a thread into a tapestry of individuals from across Earth, representing even more diversity than I had realized our campus held. The impact of higher education is both local and global, permeating boundaries and creating waves of change that spread throughout time and space.

Commencement is a transition from one stage of life to another, ripe with possibility and opportunity. This culminating experience signifies the completion of a degree that, hopefully, prepares graduates to engage wisely in both our local communities and our global village. Positive news about the generation entering our workforce is often buried beneath negative headlines that fuel fears of competition and scarcity. The reality is, transformation toward a more just and sustainable society is building. Surveys show that 80 percent of U.S. college graduates would like to make a positive impact on the environment, and 92 percent would like to work for an environmentally friendly company. With 53 percent of Fortune 500 companies now publishing sustainability or corporate social responsibility reports, and 80 percent of the U.S. population acknowledging our need to decrease consumption, a paradigm of deeper awareness is gaining momentum. The critical challenge now lies in creating systems that make these aspirations possible. Graduates need to be prepared to design social and economic systems that allow humans to thrive within the ecological limits of our planet.

From water shortages to climate change, population growth to the health of bees, biocultural diversity to globalization, everything feels inextricably interdependent and connected. Higher education is a great leverage point for addressing the complex issues that affect us all. Many students recognize the multifaceted challenges that face us, and they can become overwhelmed when classes seem abstract and disconnected from day-to-day life and there is no clear action component to the learning process. A recent article discusses a student fast at the University of California, Santa Barbara with the slogan “There’s too much to lose, don’t make me choose!” Resorting to fasting shows the seriousness with which these students take environmental, social and economic problems.

Traditional lectures and online classes have an important role to play in education, but they are not sufficient to prepare future leaders to address the complexities of our global challenges. Higher education is in the midst of a great reflection about the processes by which we accomplish our mission. I’ve been inspired by the Living Laboratory concept that envisions campuses “where problem-based teaching, research, and applied work combine to develop actionable solutions that make that place more sustainable.” The college experience can provide a stable learning environment that allows our students to see the impacts of their actions, understand the complexity of systems, appreciate multiple perspectives, and practice their leadership skills.

Resources such as the Center for EcoLiteracy’s Five Ecoliterate Practices and the American College Personnel Association’s Sustainability Change Agent Abilities offer holistic sets of competencies for students. Sustainability leadership skills will become more relevant as an ethic of care for environmental, social, and economic systems is further integrated into the leadership of communities, business, nonprofits and government. These skills can be embedded as learning outcomes throughout the student experience to create broad impacts.

Many universities work toward greener practices during their commencement planning or participate in the national [Graduation Sustainability Pledge]http://www.graduationpledge.org) to include values of environmental and social integrity into the graduation experience. These initiatives can cultivate valuable learning experiences that may not be measured. Through what other gateways do our students pass during their education, and how can we create a navigable pathway that supports development of the whole student? Whether exploring their bioregions through outdoor programs, calculating the ecosystem services of campus trees, participating in community-based learning projects, or holding leadership positions like EcoReps, hands-on experiences make classroom learning applicable.

My university recently launched a photo contest called “Oregon is our Classroom.” Students, staff and faculty sent pictures of their self-defined “classrooms,” and University Communications framed the photos with an outline of our state’s shape. When scrolling through the entries, you won’t see any students watching a professor lecture. Each submission shows a unique learning environment and groups of people working together. Engineers without Borders sent a photo of students addressing flooding at a rural primary school in Nicaragua. Participants in Alternative Spring Break submitted photos from a service trip to organic small farms. My student employees sent photos from the planting of an oak savanna on campus.

These are examples of the rich experiences that help us to better understand who we are in the world. Inspiring, authentic images and stories allow us to serve as role models for each other and create a ripple effect of possibility. Participating in a rich student life community supports development of the whole individual and is a key component of higher education’s value. Can we connect student life with campus-wide learning outcomes and touch every student? We can lower walls within institutions to become learning organizations that thrive through dynamic processes of transdisciplinary action and reflection. When we recognize our interdependence, we see that everyone has a niche to fill and unique qualities to offer. From admissions to commencement, sustainability can become an integral part of the student experience and create adaptive solutions that move toward environmental, social, and economic resilience.

Past Issues

From the July 23, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

Traditional lectures and online classes have an important role to play in education, but they are not sufficient to prepare future leaders to address the complexities of our global challenges. Higher education is in the midst of a great reflection about the processes by which we accomplish our mission. I’ve been inspired by the Living Laboratory concept that envisions campuses “where problem-based teaching, research, and applied work combine to develop actionable solutions that make that place more sustainable.”

The college experience can provide a stable learning environment that allows our students to see the impacts of their actions, understand the complexity of systems, appreciate multiple perspectives, and practice their leadership skills.

From the April 9, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

The “Connecting the Dots” column has transitioned into a monthly feature for the remainder of 2013.

We recently hosted a panel event on campus that probed the realms of morality, justice, capitalism and sustainability. Titled Good for Me – Good for Us? Self Interest, Community Values, and a Sustainable Future, the event challenged participants to consider the coexistence of community values and self-interested behaviors. Prior to the event we asked students to contemplate the perceived clash between the “moral” behaviors we teach in our American families, churches, and schools and the “selfish” behaviors inherent in our current economic system.

We worked with student groups for weeks before the event to discuss and debate our organizing questions. Several key themes emerged from these debates and discussions that are worthy of consideration by those of us working to empower students to lead the sustainability revolution.

From the March 19, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

Are you thinking about submitting an abstract for this year's AASHE conference but haven't quite made up your mind? Here are 10 reasons that you should join us in Nashville:

  1. Your ideas will be shared and discussed on the largest stage for higher education sustainability thought leadership in North America. A great opportunity for your campus and your own professional development.

  2. You will be one of the first presenters (ever!) in the new Music City Center, on track to achieve LEED Silver certification.

  3. You will have a rock-solid excuse to visit Nashville. Reward yourself after your presentation with some live music or Southern-style cuisine like you've never had before.

From the March 12, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

Whether your college is striving to reach its carbon-reduction goals or is considering divesting from fossil fuel companies, green revolving funds (GRFs) offer a compelling investment opportunity. With a median annual return (ROI) of 28 percent, GRFs are transforming campus energy efficiency improvements from perceived expenses to high-return investments. One of many GRF examples documented in Greening the Bottom Line 2012 is a project at George Washington University. GW is generating $100,000 per year in savings since investing $141,000 in 2010 to upgrade the lighting in their academic center. This project has already more than paid for itself and, over its projected eight-year lifespan, the original $141,000 investment will realize at least $800,000 in total savings (even more, if energy prices rise).

From the March 5, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

As we connect the dots from ancient history to the distant future, we envision and hope for a clean and safe future for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Sustainability professionals work diligently so that our posterity will look back at these days of the early 21st century and be pleased that their ancestors had wisdom, courage, tenacity, and imagination to overcome the huge obstacles of fast speeding and hard charging climate disruption. By honoring the ancient wisdom of our ancestors and working to protect the future occupants of our planet, our strong actions and passion may stand the tests of time. Although net-zero energy buildings currently represent a minuscule percentage of our nation’s infrastructure, they represent a hope for our descendants.

From the February 26, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

In part 1 of this post, I examined current practices for identifying sustainability courses and found that definitions of sustainability-focused and -related courses tend to leave too much room for interpretation. As a result, institutions are taking widely varying approaches to course classification and there is a huge range in scores earned on the two credits in STARS that focus on courses (ER Credits 6 and 7). Based on these findings, I argued that more guidance in STARS was necessary. In this post, I’ll make some suggestions for what this guidance should look like.

From the February 19, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

In an effort to track progress in sustainability education and promote sustainability courses, many colleges and universities have attempted to identify which courses they offer integrate sustainability concepts. As Alfred State is starting to move in this direction, I recently analyzed almost 160 definitions of “sustainability in the curriculum” submitted by participants in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). To enhance the comparability over time and with other institutions, I was hoping to find examples of definitions that are clear, specific, and require little subjective interpretation. At a minimum, I was looking for definitions that were explicit in how to deal with potential grey areas.

From the February 12, 2013 issue of AASHE Bulletin

Resilience is not the successor of sustainability; it is a sustainability synergizer. It can make sustainability work better.

How? First, resilience is people-facing. Perfect. That is sustainability’s soft spot. Allying with people-focused efforts heals sustainability’s historic hurt: a paucity of explicit social justice mechanisms. Thus by folding in resilience techniques we make sustainability better. By focusing our campuses on adapting to the new climate realities, we make our campuses better. This means we work on adaptation plans that include disaster planning not just low flow toilets. It means we talk to our leadership about investments in durable assets like renewables that are immune from impending resource shortages—and pay better anyway. It means integrating skills-based content into sustainability curriculum such as learning to weatherize low-income homes in local neighborhoods to build resilience-- and sustainability--in our communities.

Resilience is not the antidote to sustainability; it’s an additive.

From the
January 22, 2013
January 15, 2013
issue of AASHE Bulletin

While the stories above can be seen as portals into sustainability progress on our campuses, the stories under the affordability & access and diversity & inclusion categories continue to read as outliers in on-the-ground sustainability efforts at our campuses. We are often unable to connect these social justice initiatives at our institutions with existing sustainability efforts, beyond reading about them in the Bulletin. We inherently know that the inclusion of justice is essential and we undoubtedly desire just, equitable, high performing, innovative, environmentally responsible and efficient institutions. Yet more than a decade into the field we are hard pressed to find an example of a campus sustainability plan that includes a commitment to ‘need-based’ education (though the institutions committed to this are growing in number) or conversely, a need-based tuition plan that calls for ‘sustainability.’

In reflecting on this point, I return to the work of Julian Agyeman who points out: “Research has shown that, globally, nations with a greater commitment to equity and a correspondingly more equitable society tend to also have a greater commitment to environmental quality.” What will it take for this to be said of our universities? What will it take for these stories to become portals into a comprehensive sustainability plan for our campuses?

From the
January 22, 2013
January 15, 2013
issue of AASHE Bulletin

While the stories above can be seen as portals into sustainability progress on our campuses, the stories under the affordability & access and diversity & inclusion categories continue to read as outliers in on-the-ground sustainability efforts at our campuses. We are often unable to connect these social justice initiatives at our institutions with existing sustainability efforts, beyond reading about them in the Bulletin. We inherently know that the inclusion of justice is essential and we undoubtedly desire just, equitable, high performing, innovative, environmentally responsible and efficient institutions. Yet more than a decade into the field we are hard pressed to find an example of a campus sustainability plan that includes a commitment to ‘need-based’ education (though the institutions committed to this are growing in number) or conversely, a need-based tuition plan that calls for ‘sustainability.’

In reflecting on this point, I return to the work of Julian Agyeman who points out: “Research has shown that, globally, nations with a greater commitment to equity and a correspondingly more equitable society tend to also have a greater commitment to environmental quality.” What will it take for this to be said of our universities? What will it take for these stories to become portals into a comprehensive sustainability plan for our campuses?